The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James

James, Skip

album cover

A Primary Root of the Blues

Still, the music comes through, a ghostly beam from a bygone age. And what music: The frail falsetto of Skip James is primal. Even when he delivers a straight old blues line, there's fire inside his voice, telling of troubles he can't undo. James borrows the incantations of preachers for some of his inspirational numbers ("Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader," "Be Ready When He Comes") and gooses more typical "straight" blues with a sense of abject desperation.

James grew up on a plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi, where his mother was the cook; he was known to resent the Jim Crow South, and that frustration turns up in some of his music. "In Skip James you hear a lot of sorrow, but also a lot of anger," the guitarist and blues scholar John Fahey once observed. To hear this, cue up the dejected, openly frustrated "Devil Got My Woman," which is among the spookiest declarations in all of recorded blues.

Tempering his raw emotional edge is James's deceptive instrumental skill. These early sides, recorded in 1931 at the request of the Jackson, Mississippi, impresario H. C. Speir, feature James on both guitar and piano. The guitar tracks have a spry, easygoing air, particularly "I'm So Glad," a James original covered by Cream in the '60s that brought the bluesman the biggest payday of his career. And though James does play the blues straight, several tunes, like the amazing "Special Rider Blues," find him darting impulsively away from the form. He's even more fanciful on piano, interrupting "22-20 Blues" with lavish glissandos and jolly rhythmic phrases that catch the wildcat temperament of boogie-woogie. In spite of the sound problems, these early recordings are more interesting than the handful of solid, less chilling, records he made after being rediscovered in the early '60s. Unlike many bluesmen who grew more powerful with age, Skip James seized the full force of blues expression as a young man and pushed it as far as he could right then. That—and the eeriness of his voice—makes these early James sessions unique. Nobody in blues, not the superstars or the rockers who imitated them, stands above him.

Genre: Blues
Released: 1994, Yazoo
Key Tracks: "Devil Got My Woman," "Special Rider Blues," "I'm So Glad," "Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader."
Buyer Beware: As listening experiences, the early recordings of the 1930s-era blues greats are almost all crude. Like similar collections of Charley Patton, this set is drawn from original 78-RPM singles, which have lots of surface noise and distortion. And that's under the best of circumstances.
Next Stop: Charley Patton: Complete Early Recordings
After That: Son House: Delta Blues
Book Pages: 390–391

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#1 from Al, New Jersey - 07/29/2010 9:28

Fantastic record.  Eerie stuff.  Stands apart from any blues at recorded at the time.  Listen late at night at your peril.

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